While most TV content can be time-shifted, some programs lose their interest when not viewed live. News and sports are obvious examples, as opposed to Titanic or Friends which can be watched years afterwards. The Olympics, the Super Bowl, the FIFA World Cup and the Cricket World Cup are but some good examples of events coveted by TV networks, but they are scarce and expensive. Besides, successful as they are, there is still a part of the population who doesn’t watch them.
The TV industry desperately needs programs to be watched live in order to remain relevant to audiences and advertisers, and that explains why it shells out large amounts of money to third parties for broadcast rights. But despite that, the broadcasting industry doesn’t always control the characteristics of the final product which in some cases do not favor its audience and revenue goals. The alternative to producing its own content to obtain equivalent ratings is way beyond its means. Producing and marketing such a new program would be too costly for any single network.
The very essence of TV
As the medium has become more mature and as other media are eroding into the TV business, broadcasters understand that the very essence of TV, that which makes it excel over all other media, is the ability to generate very large audiences around live events.
If measured by percent of households watching a program, from 2000 the first 12 positions in the US are occupied by sport events (100% football), and sports take 16 out of the first 20 slots. The finale of Friends (2004) and Survivor (2000) take 13th and 14th positions. Two Academy Awards (2000, 2004) are the other exceptions. But, truth be told, this clear dominance of sporting events was not so clear in the past, where series finales (M*A*S*H in 1983, Dallas in 1980, Roots in 1977) or even films (Gone with the Wind, twice in the list with parts I and II in 1976, The Day After, 1983) were high on the listings.
The previous information illustrates that live events have become the best possible weapon for the TV medium to claim its social and commercial role and all indicates that the future will follow suit.
The Super Bowl Event
The undisputed king of sporting events in the history of US television was able to attract 106 million viewers in 2010, forty three years after its first celebration. Since it goes beyond a football match and features serious entertainment, it is usually held in the southern states for better weather (first Sunday of February). It explodes into thousands of Super Bowl private parties where people get together to watch it and have fun. Quite an event! Still, even though some people talk about the Super Bowl ‘Week’, it lasts just one single day, usually the most important from the US audience viewpoint (share 68% in 2010). Just one day.
The Big Four (Fox included) have been alternating ownership of rights for the event, which means that it does not belong to any one broadcaster, that they cannot count on it to build their brands, to build loyalty. They just write a fat check and try to maximize the expensive event in a short time and with a series of inflexible limitations. To make things worse, the cost of rights is increasing.
Is there an Alternative?
Creating a new large event to obtain 50%-type share is not a light issue. In the case of the Super Bowl, it relies on decades of tradition, on the NFL league, and on the traction that the sport has in the United States thanks to high school, college and professional football. In other sporting events the situation is similar; a strong organization has put together a powerful show and the broadcasting rights are sold to the networks which struggle to recoup their investments.
What is the alternative, apart from ignoring those large events? To build one would not be a natural step since it’s not in the broadcasters‘ DNA to do it and because producing and launching a new large event could be prohibitively expensive. Still, the need to attract huge audiences to watch live programming is there and, if anything, its importance is increasing as other TV products lose relevance.
Sharing the Burden of New Live Events
Personally, I do not consider it impossible that a channel or an association of networks from different countries where one channel leads the project will try to put together a new product to replicate the effect of large sporting events. While the benefits could be huge, the risks are big too, but sharing them would help because owning a successful event and exploiting it in “a pure TV way” would represent tremendous traction for the winner, an almost insurmountable competitive advantage. Difficult as it may be, I estimate that international cooperation would be required, since it could spark interest in more than one single market. Beyond that, some kind of external financial involvement may also be required. As financial products are becoming more specialized, a tool for hedging this type of 'hit or miss' investment could be created.
Last, and in order to obtain some extra public recognition, the investment could be open to small private investors like you and I along the lines of ‘box office trading’ being approved by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission by which a market for trading on predicted box office receipts Trend Exchange. Perhaps that could be combined with a simple online investment tool by which the project is accessible to individuals who would never invest in something as complicated for them as a Futures Market. After all, the objective is to create notoriety through any possible means which makes the project known to possible audiences. Let’s be honest, who hasn’t dreamt of getting the free promotion Apple products receive?
Concepts about the Program
Such an event would probably extend over a series of weeks, during which the audience warms up and grows virally to gain the critical mass required for it to be an absolute ratings and revenue success. I am far from being an expert in TV programming but when I think about it I imagine an event based on proven patterns of war-like dynamics, as in sports: one person, or one team, against others, all in real-time and where the rewards are big. Well known/promoted players struggle to be the winners. Their effort would be brought closer to the audience thanks to lots of camera close-ups, and to new indicators up to now unavailable to sporting events: heart-rate monitoring, chemical stress markers as well as any other physical or psychological indicators, constantly compared to the adversaries’. But, to be honest, my vision of the program is irrelevant. What really counts here is that a radical new type of content may be on the verge of creation.
TV programming has to come up with radical new ideas: decreasing audiences, time-shifting, the desire of advertisers to reach large amounts of consumers simultaneously and perhaps in a more meaningful way...etc. Broadcasters have to go back to the very essence of the TV experience, the relationship with the viewers in real time (to keep it simple I have overlooked the mobile and online implications).
Something is going to happen, and it will not be 15 years from now, when the networks could be too small to do it. Big Brother or American Idol were great formats, but innovation has to go on. Mix the introspection of Big Brother with the passion of sports, add new technical features and we may have a brand new type of programs, involving a new financial architecture at the service of radically more ambitious goals. They will be shown live in several markets and the audience will be able to see the (outside) performance while almost getting inside the performer.
In the battle for viewers, one player may decide to up the ante and explore radical new ways of attracting large audiences.
You are free to use this article in your publication as long as you credit the author Fernando Samaniego